I was asked to write about attending a non-affirming church. My friend sent me a text that said essentially this, plus and minus a few things in a follow-up, clarifying conversation:
“I go to a church that does not affirm queer people but whose pastors affirms me and loves me and wants the best for me. But he tells me, and I believe him, the the church in its entirety is not ready to affirm queer people and queer relationships. They are not there yet. I still want to be a part of this denomination. And I still want to go to my church. It’s all I’ve ever known, the denomination I’ve been a part of since my birth, and it’s what I am most happy with. What do I do?”
I know this story personally. I’ve lived it myself. During my time in LA (my four years in undergrad and one year of working), I attended a single church, a Church of Christ. The same denomination I grew up in. I share almost ever sentiment in the above text. The only way my story would differ is that I think I held less affinity to my particular denomination. Like this friend, it was all I had ever known, but for me, I stayed in my particular church for the people, not the particular practice.
These people were the people who were there for me through so much. They welcomed me in and were my friends throughout my freshman year when friends were hard to come by. I ate dinner in their homes. I was at their family birthdays. A few people in that church were pivotal throughout my coming out process. People in that church were the first active faith leaders, people making their income from a Christian organization, to fully affirm and celebrate me. I know where some of the people in that church stand. They are on the side of full affirmation, full inclusion, full celebration. Their mentorship and friendship made me who I am, both as a gay person, and in so many other areas of my life. On Sundays, I sat next to them and it felt good.
I was actively attending this church when I came out. It was never discussed openly with the congregation, but those who selected people to lead prayers and communions still chose me to lead such things. To be honest, I am pretty sure such invitations became more frequent after I came out. I think they wanted my voice to be heard. They knew it was important.
Though I didn’t speak about gay things. I knew that would go sour and I didn’t want to do it then. But I did share my theology, myself, and my vulnerabilities. I’m sure a part of me thought that if I could help them see me, then maybe I could convince them that I am normal, that I am okay, that gay is okay. That’s what I did then.
A pastor change happened during my last year in LA and a long time elder became lead pastor. At a welcome event, I pulled him aside, told him my story, asked him what he thought about queer people and what he thought about this particular church’s posture toward queer people. I asked him if he would do anything about it.
We stood on a patio, looked out at the Pacific Ocean, and he told me that he fully affirms me and my gayness. That he knows me to be a valiant and important bearer of the Word of God. But he told me that the church he leads is not there yet. And that he was not going to lead it to even start the conversation. He didn’t see that as his role.
I was pissed. I probably smiled and hugged him and told him thank you and that’d I’d see him on Sunday —because I was taught that kindness is Christianity and making others feel comfortable and good about themselves in pinnacle, more important than authenticity. But I was pissed, and felt removed from myself. I felt unheard and unseen. I felt like there was not even an intention to be heard or seen. I felt betrayed.
I journaled this that night:
“I do not understand how you can lead a church while silencing yourself. In my life, God calls me into courage. God calls me into freedom. Freedom from being bogged down by the perception of others and freedom to be myself, to ask questions, and to not turn my face to injustice. God is courage. I see God acting in my life when I lay everything down, as scary as it is. Right now, I risk the abundant welcome I receive on campus and I risk belonging in my communities. But I risk those things because I know God and I know this is the real deal. I cannot claim to trust God if I am not willing to risk that.”
That was my 22 year-old self without any formal Bible degree and I could not understand how someone with a terminal degree, years of ministry experience, and a current senior church leadership role could forgo all that. Do more than forgo all that. To live out its perfect opposite.
I kept going to the church, but only kind of. I missed a lot of Sundays. Instead, I went to other churches with friends from college and told myself I did that because I wanted to see those friends. But really I went because I didn’t want to the hear the words of that pastor.
They seemed cowardly. Inauthentic. I could no longer imagine them to be anything other than vowels and consonants to keep the people in the pews, to keep them comfortable. To keep perpetuating institution that has a two-thousand year history of shit going really really bad when its leadership only says what people want to hear, when its leadership fails to listen to the voice of those it oppresses.
I heard this pastor speak about race. I heard him speak about women in leadership. I watched him step aside so that people of color and women could preach instead of him. I knew he cared. But it still wasn’t enough.
His words that day on that patio tainted all the other words I ever heard from him. They tainted the hugs and hellos he gave me. They tainted the ways I sat in a pew, the ways I opened my Bible, the ways I worshipped in song. They have a lot to do with the reason I rarely sit in a pew, read a Bible or worship in song.
I found no courage in Christianity. And, for me, God could not be separated from courage.
My church no longer seemed like the vessel to the Divine. Christianity began to no longer seem that way either.
I’ll respond to my friend’s question tomorrow. See you then.